Turkey’s missile deal evidence West must rethink policy
Ties between Ankara and West eroding as Turkey moves closer to dictatorship
Russian S-400 Triumph rocket systems: purchase puts Turkey in direct confrontation with its fellow Nato members and the West. Photograph: Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty
On a visit to the ruined, ancient city of Ani last month, my tour guide offers an alternative perspective on the murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians that took place in this region a century ago.
“Foreigners don’t realise,” he says, “that the popular stories about Armenians in Turkey are completely made up.” His is a view regularly repeated by Turkey’s government towards events regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Ani sits on the border that divides feuding neighbours Turkey and Armenia, a border that has been closed since 1993. Ties between the two countries have hardly improved since, as evidenced by a senior Armenian official’s calls in 2013 for Turkey to return territory owned by Armenian communities before the horrors of 1915 happened. Today, Turkey’s already-fraught relations with its neighbours and the West may plummet further as it is set to close a €2.2 billion deal to buy advanced missile systems from Russia.
The S-400 missile deal puts Turkey in direct confrontation with its fellow Nato members and the West. Two batteries are to be shipped within the next year, with two more to be built by Russian weapons engineers in Turkey. Crucially, the missile systems are not interoperable with similar weapons used by Turkey’s Nato allies.
And because the systems will be supplied by Russia and not a Nato member, there is nothing to stop Ankara from placing the missile batteries along its borders with Armenia, an EU ally, and Greece, a member. Numerous Armenian news outlets have picked up on how this represents a new threat to their country’s security.
Sphere of influence
The deal is a consequence of the deterioration of ties between Ankara and the West that has seen Turkey drift out of the latter’s sphere of influence in recent years. “It is a clear sign that Turkey is disappointed in the US and Europe, ” Russian analyst Konstantin Makienko told Bloomberg last month.
When Turkey previously attempted to buy similar missile systems from China in 2013, Nato and western states were able to convince it to walk away from the deal. Now, because of the slow souring of relations, whatever leverage that existed then has evaporated.
The fact that advanced Russian-built missile systems are soon to be operated by a Nato member is a clear sign that the alliance’s members have fallen asleep at the wheel, and represents a major quandary. Nato’s eastern European members are deeply fearful of Russia’s ambitions, a worry legitimised by the annexation of Crimea and occupation of swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s move for Turkey seems to have fallen under Nato’s radar.
But the West can’t have been all that surprised. Ankara’s rapport with Russia and the difficulties that relationship encapsulates for the West are, in part, down to its own intransigence. Washington has refused to meet Ankara’s demands to extradite Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Turkey for orchestrating a botched military coup in July 2015 that led to the deaths of more than 250 people. The US says there is not enough evidence of the cleric’s involvement to merit Gulen’s extradition. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
Even more troubling, from Turkey’s perspective, is Washington’s support for Kurdish militias in Syria that have, during the course of the war, taken control of much of the northeast. US forces have quietly provided weapons and logistical support to Kurdish-dominated militias fighting to take Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called capital. Ankara, however, sees them, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, as the Syrian arm of the PKK. Turkey and the PKK have fought a bloody guerrilla war for more than three decades that has killed more than 30,000 people.
Ties between Washington and Ankara worsened further in May when Turkey’s foreign minister called for America’s anti-Isis envoy, Brett McGurk, to be fired for his role in supporting the Kurdish groups. All this has been taking place despite US president Donald Trump’s summation of relations with Ankara as “a great relationship [that] we will make even better.”
Turkey’s actions are also deeply troubling for the EU. In July, Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner, said it would overhaul its Turkey policy because of a campaign to jail journalists and human rights activists that has followed the failed coup.
It is clear the West and particularly the EU tolerates Turkey’s transgressions only because it must. Turkey’s military bases are essential to carrying the fight to Isis, and Ankara has ended the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe via Greece by requiring visas of Syrians, and tightening security on its land and sea borders.
While ceding to Turkey’s demands would certainly be foolish, the missile deal means that Nato and the West must finally try to cobble together a new roadmap for dealing with Ankara. There is no doubt their respective interests have diverged significantly over the past decade and that all parties realise, without ever stating so, that the accession of Turkey to the EU sits dead in the water.
Regardless, Turkey remains crucial to upholding Europe’s security and Nato’s position as the world’s leading military alliance. Drawing Ankara away from autocratic regimes such as Russia’s, Iran’s and China’s should be a priority for the West.
The purchase of the missile systems from Moscow signals Turkey is willing to threaten regional stability as well as Nato’s own internal cohesion. And while appeasing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party government has clearly only served to embolden Ankara, shunning him would bear no tangible solutions either.
Repairing that relationship would doubtlessly serve the interests of all parties. But it is up to the West to offer the first olive branch before it loses an important partner that has been wandering, with increasing abandon, further down the path to dictatorship.
Stephen Starr is a journalist who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising